March 18 -- Livan Large

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I've only seen two days of this contest, but it didn't look like much of one to me. Jon Niese looked like a fine, capable big-league No. 5 starter with upside. Livan Hernandez looked like a smart veteran who knows how to get hitters out with middling stuff. I know who I'm taking if I'm the Mets right now, and it's the guy with the World Series MVP trophy.

After he was done today, Livan told us he felt good -- like all of his pitches felt "perfect" coming out of his hand. He said he'd been working on some mechanical adjustments designed to get his delivery back to the way it used to be -- before a knee problem forced him to change it last year. He said his knee feels fine now, and he likes the difference it's made in his effectiveness.

Jerry Manuel made sure to point out the date, indicating that much can still happen to change this. But if you were betting right now, you'd bet on Livan pitching in the majors and Niese in Buffalo this April. How it shakes out after that is harder to say, but from what they've seen of Livan this spring, the Mets could do worse.

Even Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose 1997 Braves were the victims of Livan's most memorable performance, thought the big fella looked good Wednesday. In his postgame remarks, Cox went out of his way to say he thought Livan looked good -- that he had, as he put it, a "zippy fastball."

So there's that.

The Braves' starter, by the way, was Tommy Hanson, their big-time pitching prospect. He threw his fastball in the 92-93 mph range, which was slower than we'd heard he was throwing. His curveball, however, was an absolute monster. A couple of us went over to talk to Hanson after the game, and he seems like a smart, humble kid. He said he believes his stuff is good enough to get big-league hitters out right now. ("I feel like I could go out and compete with whoever's in the box," was his exact quote.)

But Hanson can't make the Braves' rotation unless they have an injury problem (the most likely being a slow Tom Glavine recovery). Their rotation features Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens, Kenshin Kawakami and, most likely, Glavine. Most likely, he'll open the season at Triple-A, and he seems open to that possibility.

"It's cool to hear my name," Hanson said, when asked what it feels like to be mentioned among baseball's top prospects. "But I know I have a long way to go to get better."

The scout I talked to who was there today said he liked Hanson's stuff but had questions about the life on his fastball. So maybe he's still a work in progress. Which is fine, since he's only 22.

I'll be chatting about this and other stuff Thursday morning at around 10:25 on "First Take" on ESPN2, if you'd like to check it out. And I'm headed to Jupiter on Thursday for Phillies-Marlins, before heading home Friday. Maybe it's warmer in NJ than when I left? Anybody?


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